Watch for these software X factor upgrades

The future of IT begins in June, with Apple's Snow Leopard, AMD's Istanbul CPU, and large-scale GPUs

Spring finds me out of hibernation, with clear vision, a new mission, and power tools in hand.

My new mission is a sort of prime directive: To make my short list of technology that I use and recommend, hardware must be engineered to rise in value the longer I own it. I demand that equipment be scalable, expandable, interoperable, and open so that I don't have to wait for a vendor to improve it. With computers, I'm after five-year gear, meaning that I not only want equipment with a useful lifespan at least that long, but equipment that is made by vendors that make an outward commitment to protecting the continuous appreciation of my investment and have a track record that backs that up.

[ Apple's new Nehalem Xeon-based Mac Pro is the perfect workstation | AMD's six-core "Istanbul" Opteron processor is more than the sum of its cores. | What does Mac OS X Snow Leopard have in store? ]

Apple and AMD are two companies that fit that mold. Apple constantly improves its systems through software. New major releases of Mac OS X are as hotly anticipated as they are because each remakes the Mac in some substantial way. It's as if every Mac owner gets a new computer every couple of years. You have to own a Mac to understand the phenomenon, and you need to be a professional Mac owner to appreciate the bottom line benefit that installing Snow Leopard on an existing Mac will deliver.

But this time, another factor plays in. On a new Nehalem Mac (see review), Snow Leopard is no longer bound by Intel's broken, legacy PC bus. The speed of access to memory is tripled by Nehalem's on-board memory controllers, opening possibilities to Mac owners that have only been available to users of RISC and AMD Opteron to date. Snow Leopard will benefit all Mac users, but Snow Leopard on a Nehalem Mac paves the way for the software X factor upgrades.

Go Mac Go

What's a software X factor upgrade? That's when software alone delivers the sort of jaw-dropping spike in application performance or scale-up in capacity that you expect from buying a new computer. Nehalem Mac users will experience software X factor upgrades over the lifetime of their systems, and many of them will appear to take place inexplicably, overnight. What sets Mac apart from other platforms is that Apple supplies all of the software an application could require in the form of frameworks. Every upgrade to a Mac framework improves the lot of all running Mac applications without the need for recompiling.

It's reasonable to offer up Microsoft's .Net framework and various vendors' Java frameworks as counters to my assertion that the Mac is unique. Indeed, .Net and Java are comparable in depth to the Mac platform frameworks. Java's frameworks are written in Java; a software X factor boost is not an option. The .Net frameworks are a mix of native and managed (interpreted) code, but they're always called from interpreted code, or from native code with the overhead of an interpreted call. In any case, Java and .Net need new hardware to speed them up. By design, new software can make a Mac go faster.

New software will make the Nehalem Mac Pro go faster. Applications will take up Snow Leopard's ability to delegate compute tasks to GPUs on the graphics cards inside the machine. The Nehalem Mac Pro I have is running Apple's current top graphics card for that machine, a single, very powerful AMD ATI Radeon HD 4870 card with 512MB of RAM. This card is loaded with potential that Snow Leopard, and applications built to run on it, will exploit, and I expect that Apple will soon offer a higher-end graphics card as an upgrade.

Actually, I misspoke: New software can make a PC go faster if your PC has an AMD CPU in it. Right after I wrapped the Nehalem Mac Pro review, I put together a system based on a 3.2GHz AMD Phenom II 955 Black Edition CPU and 1600MHz DDR3 RAM. I stuffed that machine with a pair of AMD ATI Radeon HD 4870 cards, identical to the model in the Mac Pro, only this pair is tied together using AMD's CrossFireX card-to-card bus. This machine is a preview of sorts for a two-socket workstation built around AMD's six-core "Istanbul" Opteron. When that chip arrives, Nehalem Mac Pro will meet its match.

Power of 2X

The software X factor potential in an AMD system is delivered in two parts. It will take much longer, compared to the Mac, for mass-market Windows software and in-house projects to start leveraging GPUs as a compute resource. Still, this inexpensive PC has an enormous amount of headroom in that regard. What AMD brings to the party that Apple does not is a uniquely broad range of options, configurable in software, that actually transform the processor and, in turn, the system as a whole.

On this system built on an Asus M4A79T motherboard, I find instant X factor gratification in both directions. The controls are, as yet, neither simple nor safe, but as features are tried and perfected on the enthusiast side, they'll make their way to mainstream systems as simple options. For example, down-coring and power capping, features that let you shut off up to three Opteron/Phenom cores and restrict their maximum clock speed, originated as "overclocking" (an unfortunate misnomer) settings in AMD enthusiast systems. These will migrate to servers and workstations as a pair of simple and safe BIOS settings.

The Asus M4A79T Phenom II enthusiast motherboard has a feature called TurboV that lets you choose from among ten combinations of system performance parameters at runtime, without rebooting. I make what I expect is uncommon use of this feature by using it primarily to slow, cool, and quiet the system during typical operation. Most of the time, this system runs silently. When I need it, I can kick in another profile that boosts the machine to its rated settings, while still maintaining the ability to dynamically adjust power usage according to load. When I really feel the need for speed, I can indulge it. The Phenom II 955 Black Edition CPU overclocks all of its cores comfortably to 4GHz in my machine using standard cooling. Using extraordinary measures to prevent overheating, and forsaking all concerns about power efficiency, AMD and third parties have driven this architecture's clock speed to around 7GHz. Because they can. As for me, I'm searching for the lowest possible power profile.

AMD processors' configurability creates software X factor potential that doesn't exist in Intel hardware. The safety of making a configuration switch at runtime is largely determined by system software. I believe that, over time, more of the settings associated with overclocking will be exposed, safely, to all buyers of AMD systems so that they can balance the performance and power utilization of the systems they own without necessarily opening the case. That's as it should be.

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